Teaching kids table manners is a necessary rite of passage for parents.
That said, it doesn’t have to be the arduous task that you might think. When you help activate kids’ dramatic imaginations, they are more likely to enjoy the lessons you want to teach. They are also likely to associate having good table manners with joyous family bonding time.
Use Pretend Play to Inspire Table Manners
Go to the playground on any given day, and there will inevitably be some game of “Ice Cream Store” or “Restaurant” that you can observe. Kids love serving food, talking about food and – of course – eating (yummy) food. So, what better way into helping them understand table manners than by using pretend play.
I’ve written a lot about how dramatic play using animals is a great way into connecting with our kids. Play I Spy Like an Animal – for a mindful exercise or Animal Yoga to practice gross motor muscles, breath and relaxation. In the same way, the “Animal Restaurant” game can be a playful way into teaching about table manners.
Watch this video to see how we play Animal Restaurant and check out hilarious toddlers ordering off a menu.
Use a little improv scenario and play around with animals and their (not great) table manners.
Tips for Animals at the Table
Find funny “bad” behaviors when creatures come to the table.
- Monkey, who puts food where she shouldn’t.
- Elephant, who noisily slurps his milk.
- Frog, who uses her tongue, instead of utensils to eat.
- Bear, who doesn’t ask nicely for food on the table.
- Parrot, who talks out of turn and doesn’t listen politely.
Of course, you run the risk of making the bad behavior so hilarious that the kids will want to do it more than the good behavior. Therefore, I find it works best if you play the “bad” animal. Kids will them have to inspire the animal to have better table manners through their good example. In my experience, kids love to show the right way to do something and that often trumps their desire to act out.
It is also a wise idea to play this as a game, at the table, but with pretend food and drink. In this way, kids are already well-fed and can use imaginary stuff (much less prone to making a mess!) rather than real food and drink. Therefore, they don’t have to inhibit their silliness because they might actually make a mess.
Later on, at mealtime, you can reference the way that they were able to teach the skunk or snake to eat! When kids put themselves in a character, it is automatically more fun – and funny – so they are better able to appreciate lessons that they are learning.
Play Restaurant at the Restaurant (or at home)
I remember when I was trying to get Nathaniel to stay interested in being at the table when we were out to eat, I would play “restaurant” with him.
- Make a list of all the characters you find in a restaurant (for example, hostess, waiter, bus boy, chef, sous chef, customers, restaurant critic, etc).
- Have your child pick one and you pick another.
- Envision the scenario in which you all are working or talking together, but at the table. This keeps kids focused, aware of their surroundings and playful. It also hopefully accomplishes a kind of politeness and automatic table manners since the kids are role-playing as adult characters.
Use Dolls or Toys in Dramatic Play
Winnie the Pooh, Little Bear, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane….Bookshelves are bursting with amazing kids lit that gives toys human-like qualities.
Use your child’s favorite doll, plush animal or “lovie” to help them teach the lessons you want to impart. They can take turns showing their toy how to behave well, and what they expect, and sharing with them the rules of the house. You can involve the toys at the table, thereby actively engaging your kids’ dramatic play muscles. Take it to the next level and ask them what the voice of the toy sounds like. This is a great mash-up of imaginary play and real-world-lessons that you can personalize for your own family and the behaviors you want to see more of.
Positive Discipline and Table Manners
My colleagues at Seedlings Group are masters at explaining positive discipline. This is a technique grounded in the research of Dr. Alan Kazdin, of the Yale Parenting Center. He shines a light on ways to use positive discipline to turn around defiant behavior.
There is no place like the dinner table for rebellion, yet there are some simple and actionable steps you can take to help ground your children in good manners.
Positive Discipline Tips
- Be aware of your tone of voice. Asking kindly for good behavior elicits better results than demanding or assuming you won’t get it.
- Offering choice is better for compliance. If you ask, “would you like to eat with the spoon or the fork?” or “would you like your napkin under your chin or on your lap?” increases the likelihood that the behavior you are looking for (such as, use of utensils or napkin!) will be accomplished.
- Practice the “positive opposite” instead of talking about what you don’t want to see. For example, if you say, “Don’t throw your food” it is both negative and essentially not specific. Talk about what you do want to see, like, “I like to see your food on your fork!”
- Praise the good behavior. Immediately after you see the behavior that you want to see more of, acknowledge it specifically with verbal and even physical affirmations. A big high five or a hug goes a long way in reinforcing the great behavior. And get concrete about what you saw. “Hey, asking your brother to please pass the ketchup was such great table manners!” or “I love how you cleared your plate without even being asked, let’s have an enormous high five!”
- Model the behavior that you want to see. I can’t be reminded of this enough! It is so essential that I set the tone and demonstrate what I’m after, leading by example.
Keep table manners personal and specific
Set clear rules for your family
I’ve learned over the years that kids crave limits and rules. They are especially appreciative if they get to feel ownership over them. So, come up with the table manners together as a family and kids will feel like the rules aren’t just arbitrary demands from the adults.
Be Flexible and Talk
At Nathaniel’s (arts-based-Indian-inspired-preschool), he is allowed to eat with his hands. It feels fine to expose him to this way of eating (especially because I know they take hand-washing very seriously), however at home, I really want him to use a fork! Talk about the differences in expectations that exist in different environments. It will make for good conversation about diversity of cultures and encourage flexible thinking.
Find outside-the-box ways to make the mealtime fun.
Read my tips on Playing with your food since it can inspire better eating habits!
Books can help make table manners fun and funny
Oftentimes, it can feel like diminishing returns to ask your kids over and over to have table manners. It is lovely to be able to bypass that unpleasant disciplinarian role and instead use a playful code – one that we can get from great kids lit!
Therefore, I love to find children’s books with extreme characters who are demonstrating the opposite of the behavior I want to encourage. Kids are great at identifying good and not good actions when they see it demonstrated in characters and illustrations. Reading time with your kids is a safe and neutral opportunity to discuss the right kind of behavior (rather than in the heat of the moment!). It also certainly helps to have a common base of characters who behave (or don’t behave) themselves. In that way, I’m able to gently connect the dots for Nathaniel when he is acting like someone we know from a book we read together.
For example, if we know that David (from David Shannon’s, No, David) likes to make a huge mess with his food, I might use that to my advantage. The next time that I see Nathaniel spilling food or playing with his meal in a way I don’t like, I might playfully say, “No, David!” – a catchphrase of the mom throughout the story. Then, Nathaniel can recognize that what he’s doing is not acceptable because it is like the character, David, who we already discussed as having really bad table manners!
My favorites books to play with table manners:
- Fables by Arnold Lobel – these whimsically illustrated animal stories are one-page morality tales, often involving manners. I love the story of the Hippo at the restaurant and the Kangaroo family that behaves crazily.
- No, David, by David Shannon – vibrantly depicted story of David, who aside from kooky table manners, also writes on the wall and makes incredible messes. His mother’s unconditional love – even as she disciplines, makes this a wonderful touchstone for this kind of work.
- How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food, by Jane Yolen – in this great series of how Dinosaurs would do human activities (remember that fancy English Lit term: “anthropomorphism!”?), we learn see the extreme behavior of what kids shouldn’t do, and ultimately what they should do, for excellent table manners.
Got suggestions on ways to make learning table manners fun and playful? Let me know!
Thanks so much for reading and watching!